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It wasn?t all that long ago in America that cheese was pretty much synonymous with Velveeta. But times have changed and these days, natural foods retailers have an enormous number of cheeses in the market to choose from. Indeed, rather than casting about for something new and exciting to offer your customers, the difficulty can be whittling down your cheese choices.
Although natural retailers can now select cheeses from almost every corner of the globe, it?s important to know that many of these cheeses still are not certified organic. ?Many European specialty cheeses might actually qualify as organic if they bothered to certify them, but they just don?t bother,? explains Gordon Edgar, cheese buyer for the Rainbow Grocery Co-op in San Francisco. ?So right now it?s mostly the commodity-style cheeses that are available in organic. These are the basic, not very aged, popular domestic cheeses, such as cheddar, jack, Swiss, mozzarella, grated parmesan and cream cheese.?
The organic specialty cheeses that do exist aren?t catching on at the moment, for a number of reasons. ?One is that the price point is high for certified organic European cheeses,? Edgar says. ?The second is that the quality of specialty organic cheese isn?t that good right now. You can have a [natural] Swiss Gruy?re that?s really good and aged a year, selling for $10 a pound, and it?s a really great cheese. [But] I can get Gruy?re that?s imported and it?s certified organic, but it costs 50 percent more and it?s only aged three months, so it?s an inferior cheese.? Edgar says that sooner or later European organic cheeses will break through, but he predicts it might take as long as five or 10 years.
The only additive that Edgar warns buyers to look out for in nonorganic cheeses is bovine growth hormone. ?It?s just found in domestic cow?s milk in the [United States]; it?s not legal anywhere else,? he says.
Even without the certified-organic label, there are a great number of high-end, all-natural cheeses to choose from. When you?re looking to carry some new cheeses, base your selections on demand from customers, as well as recommendations from distributors, advises Sheana Davis, who runs The Epicurean Connection, a cheese consultancy based in Sonoma, Calif. ?Oftentimes, since distributors sell to many accounts, they can offer information based on current trends and consistent lead items,? she suggests.
Edgar concurs with this advice. ?Find out who the specialty cheese distributors are in your area, and have them come into your store and give you some samples,? he says. Because there is so much to learn about taste and texture within any one type of cheese, don?t expect to figure it out on your own. ?Look for a specialty distributor who is trustworthy, someone who is very hands-on, and then take their advice. These are people who have vast knowledge about cheese. They can tell you the story of the cheese—whether it?s factory-made, what goes into it and what the people are like who make it.?
Davis says some of the most popular new cheeses are farmstead, artisan and fresh goat cheeses. Farmstead cheeses are made on dairy farms, Davis says. ?Artisan cheeses are made with respect for the tradition of cheese-making, by producing small batches of cheese, mostly by hand, from milk from nearby farms. And aged goat cheeses seem to be the next trend, as you can now locate fresh ch?vre from all around the country.?
Edgar says his customers? favorites are local cheeses. ?They want to buy high quality, and they want to buy local. Newer companies in the region are now making more European-style cheeses, but they have local flavors.?
Davis says that when trying out new, more ?adventurous? varieties of cheese, it?s essential to offer samples. ?The best way to sample is to hand-sell select cheeses, and also offer two to four samples throughout the cheese department,? she says. ?Promote a cheese with special recipes, wine and cheese pairings, beer and cheese pairings, or seasonal fruit and cheese pairings. Cross-promote with other departments in the store. Offer cheddar cheese when apples are in the peak of the season. Offer mascarpone when blueberries are in season.?
Edgar says educating employees about a new cheese is perhaps just as important as educating customers. ?If you?re going to sell some more unusual cheeses to your customers, the employees who are selling it have to know about that cheese,? Edgar says. ?If I bring in a new cheese, I?ll leave a note in our log book giving the basic history of the cheese. I?ll also always leave a piece of it in a communal area for all of the workers to sample, and explain it?s a new cheese and we want everyone to try it. If you let the other employees know what direction you?re going in when you?re carrying a new cheese, they?ll have a better appreciation for it.?
Lynn Ginsburg is co-author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin?s Press, 2002).
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 10/p. 68, 71